The Highbrow

Bret Easton Ellis

The pleasures of Lunar Park.

Reserve me a spot in what looks to be a small party: I really like Lunar Park, the tricky new novel by Bret Easton Ellis. In this I seem to be nearly alone. A reviewer for the Boston Globe opined that Lunar Park“may be the worst novel I’ve ever read,” while the New York Times called it a “lurching ride to nowhere.” What makes the latest round of bad press interesting is that Lunar Park is a book in which none other than a character named “Bret Easton Ellis,”enfant terrible and celebrity novelist extraordinaire, sets out to redeem himself. He acknowledges that the nihilistic violence in his American Psycho (which the real Ellis published in 1991) was, well, disturbing. He writes about being emotionally wounded. Who would’ve guessed that the master of anti-psychology—who made a mantra of “We slide down the surface of things” in Glamorama (1998)—would write a book that seems to take part in every therapeutic cliché of our inner-beauty obsessed culture?

Only—no surprise, really—Ellis turns the tables once again:After its pseudo-memoiristic preamble, Lunar Parkbecomes a horror story and homage to Stephen King. The story of sincere repentance is shot through with Ghostbusters-worthy slimings. In Lunar Park, Ellis is still pushing the fictional envelope as he always has, challenging the notion that there’s such a thing as an authentic self equipped with a compelling inner life that somehow matters. Think of it as the war of surface vs. depth, behavior vs. psychology, Billy the Kid vs. Oprah. Yet beneath the caricatures lies a pretty moving—if overinvolved—story: unusual, hypnotic, upsetting, and memorable.

By now the plot has been well hashed-out: Lunar Park opens with a (truly) pitch-perfect monologue by “Bret Easton Ellis” about his meteoric rise and spectacular burnout. It mashes up fact and fiction—all his sales figures are inflated, for one thing—while winking at the notion that a literary novelist could ever be “insanely” famous in the first place. (” ‘Why did Bret miss the reading?’ Paul Bogaards was constantly asked by the press.”) Having hit bottom, Ellis, our narrator, seeks out an old flame, the A-list actress Jayne Dennis, with whom he has an out-of-wedlock son. (She also has a daughter by another man.) He promises to clean up his act. They marry. They buy a McMansion in a Northeastern suburb where Jayne feeds the children organic food and schleps them to and fro, while Ellis tries (and fails) to stay on the wagon. He and Jayne attend therapy, parent conferences, and neighborly dinners. It’s like watching a drug-addled Gatsby hang with the SUV crowd. But Ellis the author is at his best here, satirical without being sneering. He makes us see how truly alien (yet somehow wistful) are our obsessive attempts to keep children safe in a world in which danger, like wealth, seems to proliferate obscenely:

My son was eleven and had a Prada wallet and a Stussy camouflage eye patch and a Lacoste sweatband clung to his wrist and he had wanted to start an astronomy club but due to lack of interest among his peers it never materialized and his favorite songs had the world flying in the title, and all of this saddened me.

Bret’s suburban life quickly falls to pieces when, on Halloween, a designer toy bird—the “Terby”—comes to life and begins to scrape the paint from the house. By the end of the book, several young boys have disappeared, violent murders have taken place offstage, and a horrific thing happens to the family’s golden retriever. It becomes clear that the narrator’s dead father, Robby—also the name of the author’s real father—is in some way behind the supernatural goings-on. We come to understand that this is a story of a son who has been corrupted irrevocably by his father’s abusive behavior, and who fears that he will likewise destroy his own son. Nearly all the details about fictional Bret’s father dovetail with the well-publicized details about real Bret’s father, and soon we believe that both are exposing a nervy sense of being damaged.

The critiques of Lunar Park argue that the authorial longings that flash beneath the surface merely “devolve” into a violent horror story, undermining any exploration of the emotions being described. In this reading, the cartoonishness makes it impossible to feel anything “real”—in the Boston Globe’s language—about the character Bret and the currents of failure that motivate him. But in the scolding Ellis the author has received for writing a “narcissistic” and childish novel, you can detect the curious fact that American critics still don’t regard horror stories as serious. Unlike Europe (particularly France), America has never had a sustained literature of the grotesque; even Poe makes us think of the decadent alleyways of Europe, not of New England. But Ellis is up to something serious. The events within—yes, cartoonish, unbelievable, even parodic—are a distinctive way of getting at the book’s preoccupation with the unconscious, with the futility of our strategies for locating a “true” self within the self-protected armor of our public behavior. It’s only fitting, in this case, that the armor be a little absurd. With his alter ego as narrator, Ellis is suggesting that the fictions that haunt us—and the culture that creates them— are what shape our characters (to put it a little grandly). There’s no “genuine” Ellis to be sifted out from the fictional one here: Author and character are one, like Siamese twins. The grotesquerie is a way past the swampy self-reflection involved in trying to locate a personal “truth.”

What galls critics is that Ellis doesn’t much care for the idea that the novel is a form uniquely equipped to translate consciousness. The most telling piece about Ellis to date is Norman Mailer’s essay in Vanity Fair in 1991, which appeared shortly before the controversial publication of American Psycho. First Mailer praises Ellis for taking on “intolerable” subject matter. Then he complains that American Psycho fails because it doesn’t teach us something about the mind of a serial killer that we didn’t know before: “We cannot go out on such a trip unless we believe we will end up knowing more … of the real inner life of the murderer.” [Emphasis added.]

But Mailer’s critique leaves out the possibility that there’s nothing to be learned by plumbing the “real” inner life of a serial killer—that such a person is a sociopath, doesn’t have a conscience, and isn’t fundamentally like us. It also assumes that understanding motivations should be the primary accomplishment of a novel. Ellis has never subscribed to this model in the first pace. (His first novel, written when he was 10, was about a man who woke up as a pancake.) His prose is uncomfortable and distinctive. He worships at the throne of stylists like Hemingway, Didion, Beattie. Yet he resists making the art in the work plain. He has a cool attachment to the planes of sentences, but he’s just as happy to mess with them, overstuffing them like duck livers. His books invoke the unnerving quality of banal things set against the right backdrop: They’re about atmosphere more than anything else. If the substance of Ellis’ critiques is not itself all that interesting—the suburbs are boring, models are vapid—the visceral experience of reading them is. Numbness is a feeling, too, and sustained flatness, while not at all naturalistic, has its own impact.

Usually there’s not a lot of range in Ellis’ writing, which is both a weakness and a strength. But the end of Lunar Park offers a sublime meditation on mortality and nostalgia, occasioned by Bret’s spreading of his father’s ashes: “I saw my father walking toward me—he was a child again and smiling and he was offering me an orange he held out with both hands as my grandfather’s hunting dogs were chasing the ashes across the train tracks, dousing their coats, and the ashes … drifted over his mother as she slept and dusted the face of my son who was dreaming about the moon and in his dream they darkened its surface as they passed across it. … From those of us who are left behind: you will be remembered, you were the one I needed, I loved you in my dreams.” The passage is all the more powerful because it comes from a narrator who has resisted talking about love and sublimity for so long. Ellis has been criticized for being unable to render feeling convincingly, but this passage—invoking the universal touchstones of middle-class American childhood—is a lyrical knockout.

Ellis has never won a literary prize, or, according to him, even been nominated for one. Meanwhile, his readership is a wide one: Less Than Zero still flies off the shelves. American Psycho has sold some 600,000 copies since its publication in 1991, and it continues to sell nearly 1,000 a month in the United States—more than many literary novels sell in a year. The novel has sold strongly in its first week in stores, and several bookstores have already placed reorders. The guy at the bookstore I bought my copy from looked up and said, “This is a really good book.” Popularity, God knows, isn’t a test of quality. But in this case the readers are onto something the critics have missed.